It is time that adults grew up and developed mature
views of children that do not veer between sentimentality and
oppression – and treat young offenders accordingly, writes
Peter Beresford.

Adult ambiguity about children only seems to be matched by human
double-think about animals. Both are at once victims of the most
terrible cruelty and subjugation and subjects of the most glutinous
sentimentality, such as TV’s Animal Hospital and Children’s

That’s why it is important to recognise the new emphasis on the
criminal processing of children and young people, important and
destructive as it is, as only one expression of a much broader
dislike of and discomfort with children in our society.

The presentation of children as both wayward and innocent offers
adults a handy way of dealing with their inconsistent attitudes
towards them. We can spot the same treatment applied to other
subordinated and oppressed human groups. Thus men’s understandings
of women as “temples built on sewers”, of black people as noble
savage and sexual threat, gays as cuddly camp and shirt-lifting
menace, and disabled people as heroic tragedies and twisted
pathogenic cripples. All are based on the same unwillingness to see
people for who they are. The new social movements emerging in the
late 20th century challenge this.

It is now time that adults owned up to imposing the same
discriminatory mindset on children. Of course, there are built-in
difficulties here. Neither concepts nor language of childhood serve
us well. Child is a difficult word to stretch from a cherubic and
obliging five-year-old, to an awkward, spotty and big 13-year-old
boy. The introduction of the term young person, rarely used by
those it is applied to, creates new problems rather than solutions.
It has an insidious power to separate children from the
understanding that adults know they should give them.

The problem for both animals and children is that they have
neither political nor economic power, and – unlike other oppressed
groups – it is difficult to see how they will ever have either.
While citizenship is now on the educational agenda, increasing
consumerist and commercial pressures are having a much more
immediate effect on children and childhood, but few could argue
that it was liberating. There has never been a time when children
have been encouraged to grow up so quickly or be so dependent as in
Western societies now.

At a recent exhibition on Art, Age and Gender jointly organised
by the Foundation for Women’s Art and Orleans House Gallery, one
contributor, Ingrid Loxtekamp, highlighted this. She wrote in her
notes accompanying her portrait of her 11-year-old sister:
“Girlhood as symbolic of innocence is still very much with us but
it is an ideal that is being challenged. Little girls are portrayed
as at once innocent yet knowledgeable, angelic yet grotesquely
adult.” She wrote of “the new social portrayal of child-woman” and
asked if it represented something more disturbing.

Children are increasingly exposed to all the negatives of
adulthood, with few of the safeguards. But we have all been
children, so why are children and adults so often at war? Why do we
learn so early to despise those younger than ourselves, just as we
are later encouraged to look down on those who are older?

It is important to talk here about children’s rights. But
emphasising rights on its own is only likely to mean more money for
lawyers. Rights must go hand in hand with structural and cultural
change. We should remember here that children can do terrible
things. They can be vicious, cruel, violent and oppressive. It is
part of the sentimentality surrounding children to deny this. But
it is crucially the responsibility of an adult society to minimise
such possibilities through the opportunities, understanding and
support given to children.

Instead of focusing attention on the responsibility of
children’s close relations and seeking to control the child by
disciplining the parent, it is surely now time to look at broader
social relations and the responsibilities that societies, social
institutions and governments have for encouraging behaviour in
children, which they then condemn. In an age that celebrates male
aggression, militarism and profiteering, it doesn’t take rocket
science to spot some of the contradictions. Meanwhile, policies for
both children identified as offenders and in need are sorely
wanting. Each needs to be coupled to broader understanding –
broader understanding that at last includes that of children

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel
University, and is involved in the psychiatric system survivor

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.